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What’s really in a name

in Going Deeper by

The life of a columnist can often be bleak. Most of the words I spill here are complaints. Whether it’s the undemocratic nature of our current political leadership or how much I hate open line shows (forthcoming), writers often only feel we’re doing the job right if we’re saying how other people could be doing theirs better.

But every once in a while one of our public institutions does something so right, so thoughtful, that they deserve our applause. Since the job of this column is to explain the importance of something of public relevance, I should explain why what they did is even more deserving of recognition than it might appear.

It is in that spirit that I say to Memorial University, on the naming of its new residence halls, job well done.

MUN hasn’t always gotten this right. While most of the original residence halls are named after people with significant associations with the education system in the province, some more recent buildings have been more noteworthy for the controversy that dogged their corporate namesakes. The Inco Innovation Centre was quickly renamed The Bruneau Building, for instance, after a former Dean of Engineering. And while the Music Building officially remains the M.O. Morgan Building, after a former President of Memorial, one of its main performance spaces sports a plaque honouring a major oil company.

(As a matter of full disclosure, I work at MUN. That said, if they do something stupid that needs further explanation, I’ll write about that too. I probably know some of the people on the naming committee, but I don’t know who they are, and the odds are quite high that I’ve butted heads with at least some of them in my time at Memorial. So any accusations of inside baseball here would be remiss – I’m not that kind of employee.)

Given this recent history, I was skeptical about MUN’s plans for naming what have been hitherto known as ‘The Twin Towers’. I was expecting Husky and Hibernia Halls, combining the modest evils of corporate sponsorship and alliteration. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to find that the towers are now Shiwak Hall and Cluett Hall, while the complex together is Macpherson College.

 Names are an example, a standard to live up to. None of us are named idly, and so what’s carried in the name affects us throughout our lives.

Macpherson College is named after the Newfoundland doctor who served with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the First World War, and who more or less invented the gas mask, saving untold lives. Shiwak Hall is called after an Inuit marksman from the same regiment, while Cluett Hall comes from an early graduate of Memorial University College (MUN’s ancestor), and a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment.

All three names pay homage to the importance of commemoration in Memorial’s genes. Whatever the role of a university in society, the role of Memorial in Newfoundland has always been as a living monument to the losses of the First World War. It honours those who died for the sake of something they believed to be more important than themselves. While we can dispute the causes of the war, or whether a war was, in fact, just, the idea of committing yourself to something more important than you is laudable, and is what we as a people commemorate here.

Furthermore, in choosing these three names in particular, the university is holding up as examples three veterans who are best known not for their political status or their wealth, but for the impact they had on the world. Each of these—as a soldier, as a healer, as an inventor—made the world a better place. Not sure what that says to the folks in Rothermere—named after the formerly (at least) fascist British press baron who was first Chancellor of Memorial—but the folks in Shiwak and Cluett get to be proud of this association, and should strive to live up to those examples.

Because that’s what really is in a name. Names are an example, a standard to live up to. None of us are named idly, and so what’s carried in the name affects us throughout our lives. At a minimum, it establishes a special connection to some person, some place, or some idea that typically serves as a touchstone in an individual’s life.

I was named after my grandfather, and my life has been marked by the comparison. When he was alive, it gave us a special bond. Now that he’s gone, the connection has become stronger. Now, whenever I face a difficult decision, I ask myself what he would have done, or if he would be proud of me now.

So when the naming committee christened these halls, they did so knowing that the names they chose would be an example to the students who live in them. With that in mind, they chose well.


Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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